Barberino Val d’Elsa, Tuscany – It’s 3:59 a.m. and I am dead asleep in the small apartment below Villa il Santo. The pizza I had consumed hours earlier worked better than any over-the-counter melatonin to put me down. I was dead to the world and exhausted from leading a group of 24 Americans on a weeklong trek through Tuscany. My best friend, business partner, and co-collaborator, Wyatt Waters, was asleep in his villa in the next village over.

4:00a.m. – The alarm on my phone goes off. I have no idea of the drama that lies ahead in the subsequent six hours. Had I known, I would have rolled over, slept through the morning, and caught an outbound flight for the following day. But I had no clue as to what lay in store, so I resisted the urge to hit the snooze button, and hopped out of bed.

Fabio, one of our drivers, was scheduled to pick us up at 4:40 to take us to the train station in Florence. We were catching the fast train that would take us to Rome well in advance of our 11:30 a.m. flight home. I showered and threw my belongings into my suitcase, along with the three pounds of pecorino cheese I would be smuggling back home in my luggage.

4:45 a.m. – I hop into Fabio’s van. He and I head to Wyatt’s villa in Tavarnelle. We are the only vehicle on the dark, winding Tuscan roads at this time of the day. The peace is nice. Waters is ready and waiting outside of his villa. We load his luggage into the van, get one last look at our home away from home, and head to the train station in Florence.

5:45 a.m. – We arrive at the train station in Florence and board our train. It’s busy as usual, but something feels different. We are seated and ready to go. Trains over here are almost always on time. We have plenty of time to get to Rome and make our flight. I text our friend Jesse in Rome who has graciously offered to drive us from the Rome train station to the airport. We look forward to that short visit.

6:10 a.m. – The train hasn’t left yet. I notice that all of the tracks in the station are full. No trains are moving in or out of the terminal this morning. Something’s definitely up. Through a porter, I find out that two hours earlier a town just north of us in Tuscany experienced a 4.8 earthquake. There are concerns that the rail lines might be damaged. The majority of Italy’s rail systems run north and south. Rail transportation is at a standstill.

6:45 a.m. – After trying in vain to see if Fabio could come back and drive us to the Rome airport, I make a decision to grab a cab to try and make our flight. The locals I am messaging say there’s no way we’re going to make it in time. I also wonder if the earthquake has affected the interstate roadways.

6:55 a.m. – Our cab driver says it will be 700 euros to get to Rome, though he’s not sure he’ll make it, and he’ll have to stop for gas. We hop in and head out. Somewhere near the city center of Florence, I call our friend, and the owner of our villas, Annagloria, to ask her advice. She offers to pick us up at a roundabout near the busy Florence toll entrance, saying she’s the only person who has a chance to get us there on time. Our flight starts boarding in three hours and 15 minutes. It’s three hours to Rome. There’s still airport traffic, luggage check-in, and security.

7:32 a.m. – Annagloria picks us up and starts driving toward Rome. Fast. 180 kilometers per hour fast. That’s 110-miles-per-hour-to-you-and-me fast. In a Volkswagen. In heavy traffic. In the rain. My friends are still texting me telling me that we’ll never make it in time. Waters is white as a sheet in the back seat. I am white knuckling it in the front seat as Annagloria is passing cars like they’re standing still. She’s laughing all the way.

8:25 a.m. – I am starting to debate whether I should just ask Annagloria to slow down and we’ll spend the day in Rome, and catch a flight home tomorrow. She is notoriously known as a fast driver in her hometown, and I suspect that the speed bumps that were recently installed on the road leading to the villa were placed there specifically for her.

I also start to wonder if I have enough life insurance to take care of my family and hope that my son remembers where I left the notes for the instructions for my funeral. Waters is trying to sleep in the backseat, obviously assuming that if we’re going to die on an Italian interstate, it’s better to not see the crash coming. I am praying.

8:35a.m. – Traffic is stalled at a snail’s pace and bumper-to-bumper. There is a wreck ahead (amazingly it wasn’t us). This costs us 15 minutes that we didn’t have to spare. Odds that already were already bad, are getting worse.

9:05a.m. – In Umbria, we stop at an Autogrill for gas. It looks like a pit-stop scene in the Indy 500. People are running around the car and hoses and credit cards are flying through the air in an all-out panic. Two minutes later, we’re back on the road cruising at a leisurely pace of 110 mph. I am still praying.

9:45 a.m. We enter the outskirts of Rome. Traffic is light, but it’s likely to get busier the closer we get to the airport. We are still going to have to check our luggage and go through security in one of the busiest airports in Europe.

10:03 a.m. Obviously having just set some type of land-speed record, we pull into the Delta departures drop-off at Leonardo DaVinci Fiumicino Airport. On two wheels. Still alive.

10:07 a.m – We rush to the front of the line at the Delta counter. No one there has even heard about the earthquake. How can that be? My bag, that had been two pounds under on the inbound flight, is now two pounds over. It must be the cheese. I stuff the pecorino into Waters’ bag, instantly making him an accomplice. Everything now hinges on the line at the security checkpoint.

10:20a.m. – To my amazement, there are only two people ahead of me in the entire security line of the Rome airport. Two people! Two people in the Rome airport security line at 10:20 in the morning. I give credit to the earlier car prayers.

10:35a.m.– We make it to the terminal five minutes before boarding starts. Still, no one in line has heard about an earthquake. We are alive. We are heading home. We are grateful.


ROBERT ST. JOHN is a restaurateur, chef and author. Find his recipe for Gorgonzola Grapes at

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